Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Follow up on Cormac McCarthy

Commenting on my last post, Brandon says that, in fact, like "a thriller" The Road "had a certain 'pulp' quality which makes it fun", contrary to Levi Asher's dismissal. Makes it sound sort of like a "genre" novel, doesn't it? Which is funny, since I wrote not too long ago that "It's pointless to say that [McCarthy] 'wrote a genre novel'." Well, I still think it's pointless, but largely because it doesn't mean anything. The claim is devoid of content, positing McCarthy as a so-called "literary" writer who has written some undefined thing called "genre". This tells me nothing.

Some might argue that he's always written genre, in the sense of that fiction marketed as "literary fiction", but which doesn't question or ultimately stray from the dominant form of the novel. One of these people might be Ellis Sharp, who writes that McCarthy's writing doesn't "engage" him: "Although the prose looks more technically up to date than [Kiran] Desai’s I’m not entirely convinced that they are quite as far apart as all that." Ellis notes this McCarthy sentence from the same extract presented by Asher: "And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders." When I first read this sentence I tripped over the "sightless as the eggs of spiders", and I would have hard time arguing against Ellis' assessment that this is bad writing. (I like this comment from Ellis: "McCarthy’s eye is on the reader – not the creature.") And yet, as mentioned in the last post, I liked the "glaucoma" simile from earlier in the passage, as well as the insistent rhythm of the prose. Those carry more weight with me than the later poor sentence, at least in keeping me interested in reading the book.

Also in his comment, Brandon observes that McCarthy "constantly bounces between really good and laughably poor" and that, for him, "[t]his is part of his appeal". How much work do readers do forgiving bad writing in search of story? A lot, I think. I'm usually not interested in doing it. I'm happy to expend even considerable effort when I read, but I'm not interested in forcing my way through bad or clunky prose because there just might be some "story" lurking behind there somewhere. I'll say more on this point later. I've already said that McCarthy is not a key writer for me; indeed, the books of his I have read did not compel me to seek out the rest of his fiction. We'll see what happens when I read The Road.

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Blogger brandon said...

Excellent thoughts. Thanks for considering mine!

I'd actually say I don't think McCarthy is a "genre" writer but that he takes a genre and then sort of wrestles it all-around. A poor comparison, but think of Wes Anderson. All of his movies might look like genre pictures (crime, schoolboy rebellion, family drama, Moby Dick-esqe adventure) but I don't think most would call him that.

McCarthy in 'The Road' and in his previous novel 'No Country for Old Men' writes a novel that LOOKS like a novel the so-called "average" reader would enjoy (and maybe they will), makes it easier to read by simplifying his prose style, and then sort of sends you on some weirder, crazier version of what you expected.

And, in reference to my good-to-poor comment...For me, I find McCarthy's good and poor parts inextricably connected. His writing is incredibly sincere, laughably sincere at times but I find that refreshing and one of many ways to bypass a novel being "smart" which I am personally not interested in.

As for reading for story, I don't exactly do that with McCarthy as in, I think the story in McCarthy's work, the events that play-out often signify the meaning. That's probably true in all novels to some extent but I'm grasping towards something here...McCarthy through dialogue and action often moves towards humanistic ideas and statements without overwhelming a reader.

'No Country...' it seems to be,is a novel about Reagan and Reagan's super-questionable solutions to "the drug war". I'm simplifying my point on 'NCFOM' but I'm trying to keep this kind of short...
In a lot of ways, its hard not to read an Apocalypse novel written in 2006 as being about the president and the "current political climate". But, to read either of these novels the reader does not HAVE to understand this or even agree with it because he also gives you an insightful, well-wrought, and sympathetic portrayal of nearly everyone in the novels.

I think McCarthy was probably inspired by a lot of "popular fiction" writers as well as Faulkner and Melville. My knowledge and experience with pulp writers and popular fiction is scant because I'm an elitist, but some of what I have read, while not always up to par writing-wise, makes up for it through insight and a personal message or point. I've read the crime fiction of Donald Goines quite a bit and while he's not a great writer, he's certainly saying a lot about race, crime, drugs, etc...

April 03, 2007 2:21 PM  

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